Friday, January 03, 2014

Canadian Secular Alliance Question & Answer Session at Eschaton 2012

After my speech at Eschaton 2012, there was a Q&A session with three Canadian Secular Alliance panelists: Justin Trottier, Veronica Abbass, and myself.

Questions raised included spending during Canadian political campaigns, the limits of free speech, and whether organizations such as CSA and CFI Canada can and should embrace the religious who agree with the principles of secular governance.

If asked today, I would probably change my answer (ten minutes in) to the question about the federal Conservatives having an explicit anti-science agenda.

Overall, I am happy with the thoughtful and spirited exchange of ideas. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What war on Christmas?

There is no war on Christmas, except in the paranoid minds of those that insist Christians are a persecuted majority in the US (perhaps it is contagious - Canada's federal government in recent years seems to be making wishing people a Merry Christmas a priority).

In the bad old days, pretty much every Canadian was Christian (those that were already here were sent to residential schools because they weren't considered "real" Canadians; those that believed differently either weren't allowed in, were openly discriminated against, and/or were deemed disposable (by, for example, forced labour building rail lines)). Canada now boasts significant numbers of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, Wiccans, and a growing percentage of individuals who adhere to no religion.

"Happy Holidays" as a generic greeting is a recognition that, until you learn otherwise, it isn't necessarily accurate to wish your conversation partner "Merry Christmas." Of course, if offered a seasonal greeting that isn't part of your cultural heritage, just respond in kind. It's simply being polite - a quintessential (in stereotype, if not in reality) Canadian value. In no way is it accurate or reasonable to portray "Season's Greetings" as an attack on Christianity.

Christmas has been a secular consumerist event for decades. Many people celebrate and love Christmas for entirely non-religious reasons. If a store doesn't erect a Christmas tree or manger display, it's a business decision - not an ideological assault or anti-Christian sentiment.

Using the term "war" is a clear example of overblown rhetoric. We're moving from assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas to recognizing the reality that many do, and some don't. No one is shunned. No one is hurt. No one is maimed. No one is killed. No one is having their rights infringed upon in any way. Where is the war? Because religious displays are left to private homes and houses of worship instead of city hall? Because Christmas iconography (including the "secular" kind, such as conifers and sleighs) are merely prominent instead of universal?

To those incensed at the fading prominence of explicit Christmas greetings - get a sense of perspective. Christmas is offensive to no one, but the phrase "War on Christmas" is to many. Direct your passion, indignation, resources, money, and energy to the plenitude of issues facing our society that need addressing. Don't waste your (and so many other people's) time with this invented non-event.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Do not give your money to these people

They are everywhere this time of year - at the entrances of supermarkets, in the hallways of malls, by the exits of beer and liquor stores.

They use a number of gimmicks to attract your attention, are usually polite, and all want the same thing - your money. 

I am talking about the Salvation Army, and I want to encourage you not to let the bell-ringers convince you to make a contribution to their organization.

Last year I learned that the Salvation Army is a despicably homophobic organization. The Canadian chapter "believes marriage is the covenanting together of one man and one woman for life in a union to the exclusion of all others." It has similarly unenlightened views about gays and lesbians (but does not condone violence). Different chapters (countries) have different policies, some of which state that being gay is a sin before God and must be corrected.

Despite its generally successful efforts to portray themselves as an inclusive organization serving anyone in need, in practice it is ecumenical - serving folks of all religious backgrounds, as long as they are Christian (or willing to consider becoming so). I have heard that some branches offer food, coffee, and extra breaks to employees who attend daily prayer groups.

 "The Salvation Army exists to share the love of Jesus Christ." The Canadian chapter's mission statement reveals that the primary purpose of your money and gifts is to proselytize the Good Word. I was shocked to discover this about the Salvation Army, given its ubiquity; perhaps others will be surprised as well.  

I will not contribute anything to the Salvation Army, regardless of their other good works. They operate under false pretences, using the goodwill of others as a club to evangelize, and consider the words written on a piece of parchment millennia ago by desert nomads to be more important than the well-being of their fellow contemporary human beings. I encourage everyone instead make a donation to organizations that are genuinely charitable. Given the multiple disaster areas around the world, from the wreckage left by extreme weather events to the horrific human consequences of war, I recommend Médecins Sans Frontière (Doctors Without Borders).

Friday, December 06, 2013

What was Brian Pallister thinking?

Brian Pallister, leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative party and head of the provincial official opposition, created quite the stir in some circles when the following video was widely circulated online on Monday, December 2 2013:

Many self-identified "infidel atheists" were incensed by his remarks. I fail to see what the hubbub is about. 

Here is a basic breakdown of what Mr. Pallister focuses on during the 23-second video:
  • 5 seconds wishing folks a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah
  • 15 seconds talking about how he doesn't understand unbelievers, and how that's fine with him
  • 3 seconds wishing everyone all the best
Atheists got top billing in terms of air time.

Of course, I have no access to the inner workings of Mr. Pallister's mind, but the following seems to me to be a reasonable guess.

Mr. Pallister was speaking off the cuff on a topic he is rather uncomfortable with - hence the stumbling, almost stuttering delivery. He is probably aware of atheists and religiously unaffiliated Canadians in a way he wouldn't have been even ten years ago.

So while saying "Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah," he possibly thought, without preparing an answer, "What about the nonbelievers? I can't appear to be excluding them, and I don't want controversy." And so he started his sentence, and another part of his brain interrupted with, "Don't be too accommodating; you don't want to alienate your religious constituents."

Thus the strange mix of inclusiveness, wishing everyone all the best, with terminology ("atheist infidels") most often used in a pejorative manner.

Mr. Pallister inadvertently drew attention to the fact that a large and growing number of Canadians do not view Christmas as a religious holiday in any way. Canadians generally view the end of the calendar year as a time to embrace family, feasts, gifts, trees, lights, retail discounts, and three statutory holidays within one week. The religious nature of December 25th matters to an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. "Keep the Christ in Christmas" was quaint twenty years ago. It is not as obsolete as abacuses or monocles, but still a reminder of times past, like cathode ray tube television sets or people wearing wristwatches. Mr. Pallister clearly recognizes this on some level, even if it doesn't apply to him personally.

In my view, this is a tempest in a teapot. He spent most of his time saying how he wanted everyone to enjoy this time of year, and was clearly grasping at straws to find a way to do so. Yes, he employed a poor choice of words. But rather than criticise him for that, freethinkers should thank him for explicitly mentioning the community and his desire for all to appreciate the season. Instead, request that Mr. Pallister accept the invitation to speak with a representative of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba so he can extend warm wishes in the future to a significant part of his electorate in a more diplomatic, appropriate manner. If he accepts, it would demonstrate genuine good faith, and his message will be received with the warmth and compassion with which it was (presumably) intended.

Citing this as an example of anti-atheist bias in elected officials is inappropriate and will dilute warranted criticism when other public figures make far more egregious, explicit attacks on atheists' legal rights and physical well-being. Save outrage for truly outrageous acts.

Secularism is not nearly enough: Video

One year ago, I attended the Centre for Inquiry Ottawa's Eschaton 2012 conference. I gave a speech entitled Secularism Is Not Nearly Enough as part of a Canadian Secular Alliance panel, which was recorded. The video has just been made publicly available. The video freezes during the first minute, but is of reasonable quality thereafter. Enjoy.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Letter to the Editor of the Toronto Star

On Friday, October 25, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno published an article entitled "Brampton father fighting with Catholic school board should consider public school". In it, she criticizes a teenager and his father for demanding that their legal rights be respected, and litigating when they were not. The article prompted me to write the following letter earlier this week to Ms. DiManno, the public editor, and the Letters to the Editor page. The Toronto Star declined to publish it (or respond at all).

Update:  The Toronto Star published my letter to the editor on their web site and (in slightly abbreviated form) in the November 2 print edition.

Good day,

Why did Ms. DiManno choose to spend an entire column attacking the characters of a Brampton teen and his father?

Their only sin, according to Ms. DiManno, is holding the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board accountable for not obeying the law.

There are any number of reasons that a family may prefer a local Catholic school to a distant public one - but Ms. DiManno makes no effort to discover what motivates the Erazos.

Instead, Ms. DiManno characterizes the Erazos as "helicopter parents" "incubating a couple of claim-to-blame whiners", who are "selfish" and "holier than thou". These smears are not justified in any way in the text of her column.

Leaving teens without oversight during school hours perhaps could be unwise. Furthermore, ensuring supervision for those exercising their legal right to be exempted from Catholic liturgies seems a small price to pay to maintain special status in Ontario's blatantly discriminatory educational system, wherein Catholics (and only Catholics) receive billions of dollars every year from the provincial government to educate their children according to their faith.

I realize that Ms. DiManno's is an opinion column; nonetheless I was disappointed to find it utterly devoid of facts.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Conversation with a believer, part 4

I initially engaged in this conversation because my conversation partner seemed an intelligent, thoughtful, articulate person, with a radically different perspective on the world. I hoped to learn something of value from our interaction, perhaps changing some of my deeply held assumptions about how best to understand the universe. However, I found that when examined, the bold claims made by my discussion partner morphed or changed or retreated to such an extent they bore little resemblance to their initial form. When the discussion shifted from a search for truth into a description of differing world views, I withdrew. As with other entries, the text has been lightly edited for clarity and anonymity. I let my conversation partner (indented text) have the last word.
You don't need to take my word for it regarding corrupted translation or not, go ask any fluent Hebrew speaker, there are plenty [where you live]. The source of the corruption is from when the Torah was translated into the Septuagint. There are many words in Hebrew that don’t translate well into English (especially by way of Greek), simply because a word for it doesn't exist in the English lexicon. An example is the word "Et" (found all over Genesis, no translation in English). Other corrupted translations in English include "Ruach" (Gen1:2) translated as spirit, real meaning is "wind"; "Tzelem" (Gen1:26, 27) translated as image, real meaning is "shadow". Meaning, inside, we are a remnant or representation of G-d. We function like G-d on a small scale. He placed within us a shadow of Himself to act in the same manner. In other words, we are creators as well (think procreation).

Your rebuttal regarding people trading across large geographic areas as an explanation about the 4 animals claim still doesn't make sense. How did the author of the Torah, even with all of the trade information, know with absolute certainty that a 5th animal doesn't exist, either fossilized from the past or somewhere undiscovered in the present or future? Pretty bold statement coming from a mere mortal.

The centrality of the oral law is prime principle of Judaism. It is what explains how to do everything we are asked to do in the written law. I also never claimed that the oral law was human-made. On the contrary, I wrote that the Torah on at least 13 instances mentions "Torah's" (pl.), indicating that it was given at the same time on Sinai.

You claim that saying humans trying to comprehend the divine is cop-out (although I understand your reasoning) totally undermines the definition of an all-powerful, all-knowing, divine being. If humans were to be able to comprehend the divine, then what does that say about G-d? "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the LORD" (Isaiah 55:8). If we would be able to understand the Divine language, there would be no reason to talk about G-d's hand, G-d's anger, his throne of sapphire, and other physical attributes ascribed to spiritual things. The reason physical metaphors are used, is to help us understand the divine through our human frame of reference and context.

If a fish were found tomorrow with scales but no fins I would abandon my beliefs, however over the course of history none has been found yet, and we have been deep sea exploring for quite some time now. Regarding the passage Gen 1:30 about the carnivores, you are assuming that carnivores existed from the beginning of time. Jewish tradition states, and scripture supports, that animals and humans were herbivores in the beginning. Re-read Gen 1:29-30. Man was given herbs and fruit (not animals to eat). Animals and birds were given green herb to eat (not other animals). Only in Gen 9:3 was man and animal given the green light to eat meat, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all." and there is a reason for that, but that would take us way off track, so for the purposes of our discussion I will leave it at that.

Regarding the 1018 stars comment, I truly apologize, but I couldn't get Facebook to recognize the exponential script. What that really should have been is 10 to the 18th power (18 zeroes). NASA claims 10 to the 21st power stars. Now, granted 10 to the 18 is not 10 to the 21, but they are both way different from the 4,000 stars that can bee seen with the naked eye back then. So the question remains, conventional wisdom of the times stated about 4,000 stars, but the Torah really went out on a limb and wrote a significantly higher number. Now you can argue that 10 to the 18 is not 10 to the 21, so therefore – ERROR. Looking at the big picture, when you are talking about numbers that high, they are fairly close, and secondly, much like everything else in science (like the age of the universe) I'm sure this number will be revised in time to be much closer together.

Regarding your comment, "To my way of thinking, the invisible and the non-existent are indistinguishable." I suppose then in your world x-rays, FM waves, and sound itself doesn't exists, because I can't see any of them.

Just as a way of background, I have a science background myself and very much believe in empirical proof. In my field (Physical Therapy, or Physiotherapy if that makes you feel better ) we are driven by data, outcomes, and research. However, the things that the Quack-a-doos were doing 10-20 years ago is now mainstream with solid systematic reviews backing it. What I am saying, and have been saying, is that Science is ever evolving and our concept in science of what is "right" is always changing (just think of poor Pluto and his lost planetary status).

Even today, in the field of quantum physics we are arriving at a truth that merges very much with the Torah world-view of interrelationship of everything (see M Theory).

One serious question I've been meaning to ask you; if an atheist hears someone sneeze, do they still say 'bless you'?

I also wanted to respond to the comment you keep bringing up about the sun and the moon. As I previously stated, Science is always discovering "new" things that the Torah has always known as the truth. According to the Torah and Midrash there were two great lights created and then the moon diminished in size and lost her light. This is in the process of being proven scientifically by the answer / theory being recently promulgated to explain the gravity anomalies on the surface of the moon. The theory says that the moon lost something which escaped its gravity and left behind this gravitational anomalies. The conclusion of this article states, "We now know the ancient moon must have been much hotter than it is now and the crust thinner than we thought."

Two other quick things: Please re-read my comment about the waters above and below the firmament. It was not referring to rain, anyone can see rain, nothing to prove here. But the profundity of the statement is that there is more water above the firmament than below. Anybody from down here can see gigantic bodies of water (~71% of the Earth's surface) and can't really see that much water in the skies. The divine authorship is the knowledge that our space particles can fill 1,000 Earth sized planets, thousands of years before telescopes and a space program.

Also, in case you didn't like my comment about all animals being herbivores at first, please reread the passage from the Torah and you may see it a bit differently. The tiger and other carnivores eats animals that eat grass and herbs. So the tiger was given grass and herbs to eat, just like all other animals, but just not in a direct manner.
I think we have reached near the end of a productive conversation, as we no longer seem to have any common ground.

How can you claim a given text is divine when you yourself readily provide many instances where it has been corrupted in translation? Your examples involve mistranslations from Hebrew into English, but (at a minimum) the Torah has been translated from Aramaic into Greek, and from Greek into Hebrew. You really believe that these two translations were without flaw when so many errors crept into the Hebrew to English translation?

You find it "entertaining" that I did not address every single point you bring up, when my response had already ballooned to be larger than a blowfish with a water retention problem, while failing to address or even acknowledge major sections of my response. I am not amused.

I didn't address certain items you brought up because you have already made it clear there is little point. You have sidestepped most issues I addressed, either by saying it doesn't matter, that it is a translation error, or by ignoring it completely. I point out contradictions, you respond "Oral Law!" No examples, no citations, no argument, no rational explanation - as though the mere existence of the Oral Law magically erases all contradictions within the Torah. You say water above and below is proof of God because only God could have known about meteorites and that they contain some amount of ice, utterly discounting the (far more likely) possibility that the author was referring to rain. (Here is the entirety of Gen 1:7: "And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so." How you get from there to "there is more water above the firmament than below" is a mystery to me. Gen 1:7 is not a profound statement about meteorites - it's oceans and thunderstorms. Am I wrong? Show me! You haven't done so thus far.) I went into detail about how your "proofs" regarding the moon were unconvincing, pointed out blatant falsehoods in the Torah, showed an example or two of where the Torah directly contradicts itself - and your response was that since I didn't address the Big Bang, the Torah is right in everything.

This is not arguing in good faith - this is whack-a-mole. You keep moving the standards on which this conversation is based. It started with "Find one flaw in the Eternal Torah and I will abandon my faith" and has now moved to "Until you, Leslie, who is far from an expert on life and history of the Biblical era, can explain the terrestrial origins of every chapter and verse of the Torah, I will maintain that I am right and your mind is closed."

Genesis 1:30 incorrectly states that all animals are herbivores, which is not true. Arguing that carnivores eat plants indirectly, which was your reply, is an exercise in rationalization - you might as well say all animals live on sunlight, since plants simply store the energy of the sun. Then the antelope eat the leaves, and the cheetah eat the antelope. Would you really say that it is fair and accurate that animals live on sunlight? Any teacher would give a failing grade to a grade 9 student who claimed all beasts eat plants - but you're willing to give God full marks. Your standards for a divine, all-knowing entity are astonishingly low.

The Torah got the order in which species appeared on earth wrong in Genesis 1. It contradicts itself in Genesis 2.

The God who wrote the Torah was either far from omniscient (which I infer would mean he isn't God, so maybe humans wrote it), deliberately misled people (a trickster God - "Haha, look at that silly human walking up to a lion thinking he won't be eaten! Human misery makes me giggle." - is hardly a moral role model), or was pretty lousy at expressing Himself (in which case, one can't really trust anything He has written). Whichever interpretation you adhere to, I don't find any reason to elevate the Torah above all other written works.

The article on mass concentrations on the moon has nothing to do with light sources in the sky and so for that reason alone is utterly irrelevant to our conversation. In addition, the time scale the author is referring to is billions of years ago during the moon's formation, not thousands of years ago when the Torah was written. If you're off by six orders of magnitude, you're not right. People thought the moon glowed. They were wrong. So is the Torah on this point.

You seem like an intelligent, articulate individual, which is why I engaged in this conversation. Your recent posts show a breathtaking lack of intellectual rigour. To take my remark about "invisible" and interpret it solely to mean the narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum the human eye can see is to miss the point entirely. True, humans cannot observe x-rays, FM waves, and sound with the naked eye alone. But we observe their effects every day. X-rays diagnose numerous medical conditions, from cavities to broken bones to cancers. Anyone who has listened to a radio has evidence that both FM and sound waves exist. Do you really want to equate the existence of God with the existence of sound waves? Be careful, because there is no proof - none - direct or indirect - that any of the thousands of deities humanity has worshipped over the ages has ever been more than a figment of human imagination.

Your "serious question" is anything but. Yes, in North America, almost all atheists will say "Gesundheit!" or "Bless you" when they hear someone sneeze. They do this because this is the social custom, not because it reflects an underlying belief. I doubt very much most Christians are thinking about their Saviour when they stub their toe - nonetheless, many of them shout "Jesus Christ!" at that moment. (For that matter, many Jews say the same thing in this situation.)

Your justifications for the divine origin of the Torah are not at all consistent with someone who values empirical proof.

And unless you adhere to basic fairness in argument, address the substantial points I have raised, and demonstrate far more consistency in the standards you apply, I fear I must withdraw from this conversation.
"To take my remark about "invisible" and interpret it solely to mean the narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum the human eye can see is to miss the point entirely." That's pretty much how I feel when you take the Torah's words literally. There are many layers to the Torah's words from poetry to prose, hidden numerical and equidistant codes, inferred meanings, and mystical intentions, but if you take it solely on the literal level you miss the point entirely. That is why I keep bringing up the Midrash and the Oral law. You may know x-rays and FM waves exist because you observe their effects everyday. Well I know G-d exists because I observe His effects everyday as well, and it is all encoded in nature, geography, science, and human psychology.

"Religious beliefs define for its believers an entire mental construct about how all existence operates. Religious beliefs, however primitive or advanced, share this one element. Therefore, what one accepts to be true, and what one considers to be the source of truth defines for one everything, what they think, how they feel, and what they do." -Ariel bar Tzadok-

Your religion is Science and mine is more traditional in terms of definition. Yours can be observed with the naked eye and involves the physical world, mine is beyond measure because it is not of this world. If you look back carefully, you will see that I tried to answer most, if not all of your questions and statements.

You did not accept any of them and deemed them all to be primitive. That is fine. That is your free choice. I did not accept your answers and deemed science and its theories to be ever evolving, so therefore how do we know when it has stopped evolving and we have arrived at the final answer?

If you look back carefully, you will see that we both arrived to the same conclusions, except the conclusion is relative to our point of view. Much like the theory of relativity posits, we did arrive to the same place, but it's hard to recognize that when you believe we are viewing the world from the same platform.

I wish you the best and I thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. However, I think we both knew from the beginning there would be no clear "winner", or perhaps we are both the "winner", or maybe I knew I would be the "winner" while you knew you would be the "winner". Perhaps all of the above scenarios are true, depending on how you look at it, and from which angle you examine it. After all, it's all relative.
I thought we were discussing truth, not personal worldviews.

Your religion is your philosophy; that's fine. But no religion has ever contributed one whit of knowledge about the universe. From that perspective, all sacred scrolls are dead, inert documents.

They contribute nothing to our understanding of the world.

Religion may be how you structure your understanding of and interactions with the world; that says nothing of its truth, accuracy, or value.

When the Torah, through its words, poetical allusions, numerology analysis, numerous inferences, and mystical connotations, can be interpreted to mean anything, then really the Torah says nothing. No matter the truth of the world (which has only been discovered via secular means), you will be able to find a way to reconcile that with the Torah.

As I said before - if it only contains wisdom in hindsight, it is useless as a source of knowledge.

I took you at your word that you were interested in truth; I see now I was mistaken. Instead, all things are subordinate to the words of the Torah. This may provide comfort and happiness to you and your family; but it is not an open, honest search for how the universe truly functions.

These are fundamentally different philosophies, and the source of our incompatibility.
I respect our differences and am happy to leave it at that. My premise was not that the Torah contributed one whit of knowledge, but that all the knowledge we have now was encoded in the Torah thousands of years ago, including events in world history. You may not see what I see, and I dont expect you to. Science will always be following the Torah, and that is not my opinion. Thank you for challenging my worldview and engaging me in this conversation.
Also, I need to correct a glaring mistake in your statement. The Torah's original language was Hebrew, and then later translated into all other languages. This fact is accepted by Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform circles, I am not sure what your source is. The term "lost in translation" is very applicable here, since there are many words and concepts that are native solely to Hebrew and simply don't have a word in other languages, so the language (English, Greek, Russian, etc..) has to pick words from its own lexicon to explain it, but it's never the same. A document can only be corrupted in translation, when it's translated. The original Hebrew that's printed in books and is on the scroll is the actual original text brought down from Sinai. I feel like I needed to point this out so that you don't think the Torah is one big corrupted translation from Greek, Aramaic, or other.

When there is a discrepancy in any legal or other document you always have to go back to the original.
This, I'm sure is something we can agree on. That is the reason I can't accept or utilize corrupted English translations to explain the passages. That's why I had to revert back to the original text when discussing the hare and the image of G-d.

Again, I respect you and your position. Your arguments make perfect sense from your point of view, and I have tried to see it from your point of view. However, there are still too many questions that science hasn't the answer for, simply because certain things can't be measured and measurement is the standard science lives by. It is all fair in physical things that can be measured, but as quantum physics is starting to discover, there is a whole other world that runs by a whole different set of rules and we have not explored the quantum world thoroughly enough to understand it completely. But, even scientists are starting to recognize through quantum physics, certain truths that were described in the Torah long ago. Even they are searching for the so-called "G-d Particle".

X-rays and FM waves can be measured and their effects can be seen, but 3,000 years ago there was no method to measure them and their effects could not be seen. That doesn't mean that they didn't exist. We just didn't know how to harness them. Take a laptop or television back 300 years and show it to the people of the time. They will call you a witch and burn you at the stake.

All I'm asking is not to burn the Torah and it's believers at the stake, just because the people of today can't see or measure what it describes. Perhaps in time science can develop a measuring tool to record the presence of a divine being in this world, much like they did with x-rays and radio waves. That would truly be the epitome of Science and Torah being symbiotic.

I wish you the best to you and your family.